In cleaning off my desk just now I found a quote I’d copied down back in 2002, which went as follows:
Even when reading is impossible, the presence of books acquired produces such an ecstasy that the buying of more books than one can read is nothing less than the soul reaching towards infinity… we cherish books even if unread, their mere presence exudes comfort, their ready access, reassurance.
It seemed to be attributed to the bibliophile A. E. Newton (1863-1940), but I thought I’d better google it to be sure. What I found was confusion.
In the first place, many sources had, after the word “acquired,” the phrase “(by passionate devotion to them)”—with or without parentheses—which certainly reads better. But to find what the correct form was, an accurate citation was needed, and there was none to be had. Eventually I turned up page 78 of Newton’s A Magnificent Farce: And Other Diversions of a Book-collector (1921), which has: “…it is my pleasure to buy more books than I can read. Who was it who said, ‘I hold the buying of more books than one can peradventure read, as nothing less than the soul’s reaching towards infinity; which is the only thing that raises us above the beasts that perish’? Whoever it was, I agree with him…” So there we have a portion of the original quote (in slightly different form), but attributed to the mysterious “Who was it.” This could, of course, be a coy way of quoting oneself. But what about the rest?
Next the quest brought me to The Anatomy of Bibliomania by Holbrook Jackson (1874-1948), which seems to be a collection of quotes on the pleasures of books and book-collecting, italicized and footnoted (good man!), stitched together with Jackson’s own commentary in roman type. On page 183 (continuing onto page 184) we find:
Even when reading is impossible, the presence of books acquired by passionate devotion to them produces such an ecstasy that the buying of more books than one can peradventure read is nothing less than the soul reaching towards infinity, and that this passion is the only thing that raises us above the beasts that perish,1 an argument which some have used in defence of the giddy raptures invoked by wine.
The footnote refers us to “A.E. Newton, A Magnificent Farce, 78,” which we have already visited. So far, so good; the italicized bits are from Newton, the rest is from Jackson, and the whole thing at some point got attributed to the former.
But what about the last part, “we cherish books even if unread, their mere presence exudes comfort, their ready access, reassurance”? The internet holds hundreds of instances of it, always attached to the previous quote by ellipses, but Google Books can’t find it at all. Is it from some work of Newton’s not yet digitized? Was it tacked on by some anonymous compiler of Meaningful Quotations who thought it would suit the context? Alas, it is not in The Yale Book of Quotations, nor The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, nor Bartlett’s, so I can only speculate, and ponder for the thousandth time the difficulty of pinning down “famous quotations.”